Cubs

On paper, have Cubs put together a better roster than last year's World Series team?

On paper, have Cubs put together a better roster than last year's World Series team?

MESA, Ariz. – One minute into the media scrum outside the West Wing, a Washington reporter asked Theo Epstein if this season would be considered a disappointment if the Cubs don't win the World Series.

"Oof, I hadn't thought too much about 2017 yet today," Epstein said after President Barack Obama's final official White House event. "But, yeah, I mean, that's our goal. I think the organization has come such a long way and we have this talented young core. We're clearly in a very competitive phase where I think if we do our jobs, we could be as good, if not better, than any team in baseball.

"So if you're going to compete, you set your sights for the world championship. It doesn't always work out that way. But we see it as our jobs to do everything we can to be back at the White House next year."

Whether or not Epstein would actually go through with a Donald Trump photo op is a different story. But with the Cubs signaling their Opening Night roster – keeping outfielder Matt Szczur and infielder Tommy La Stella while lefty reliever Brian Duensing begins the season on the disabled list – you could make the case that the team breaking camp on Wednesday looks better on paper than last year's World Series winner.

"This is a crazy talented group," All-Star closer Wade Davis said. "There's 10 or 12 players on this team that are some of the best players in baseball."

That doesn't mean the Cubs will develop the same chemistry or sense of purpose, but this team is completely used to the national spotlight, hanging out with celebrity fans and being followed around like rock stars on the road. 

Epstein compared this camp in Arizona with what the Boston Red Sox faced after ending the 86-year drought. 

"I will never forget in '05 spring training, we had 5,000 people the first day, 3,000 fans every day," Epstein said. "I was expecting it to be as nuts. But it's been refreshingly normal, reflecting the personality of our players, taking everything in stride."   

This doesn't mean the Cubs will stay as healthy as they did last year, when the projected rotation made 152 starts combined. But four-fifths of that group returns with Brett Anderson – given his natural ability, pitching IQ and extensive medical file – appearing to have a higher ceiling and lower floor than Jason Hammel.

As Anderson said: "It's not too often that you have a salty veteran with multiple rings (John Lackey) in front of you and a guy (Kyle Hendricks) that led the league in ERA behind you."

The 2016 Cubs won 103 games and scored 800-plus runs: without Kyle Schwarber contributing a single hit during the regular season; and with Jason Heyward finishing with a .631 OPS (or 103 points below the league average).

Manager Joe Maddon said Geek Department projections have this lineup generating even more offense with Schwarber as the new leadoff guy (even with a brace on his left leg), continued growth from young players like Addison Russell and Willson Contreras and Heyward not being one of the worst hitters in the majors.

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The Cubs are also counting on a full season from Davis, instead of a half-season rental like Aroldis Chapman. Where last year's Opening Night bullpen featured three guys who would get DFA'd or traded by midseason (Neil Ramirez, Clayton Richard, Adam Warren), this version features three guys who've already notched the final out in a World Series (Davis, Koji Uehara, Mike Montgomery).

"All the additions are wonderful complements to what this team was already," Schwarber said. "Upgrades. It's going to be really cool to see how it all plays out this season with more guys getting another year of experience under their belt."

Ian Happ raising his profile and hitting around .400 in the Cactus League should help his trade value if the Cubs need to deal for pitching at the trade deadline. The combination of Albert Almora Jr. and Jon Jay in center field should be an improvement over Dexter Fowler for a team that led the majors in defensive efficiency last year.

As someone with fresh eyes – and the perspective from being on Los Angeles Dodgers teams that won back-to-back National League West titles – Anderson hasn't see any signs of complacency.

"Not at all," Anderson said. "The young guys are still hungry. And the handful of guys that weren't here last year makes you that much more hungry and itchy to get back where they were last year.

"It's a really good mix – if not a perfect mix – of young guys, veteran guys and a couple fresh faces that are eager to get back to what these guys accomplished last year."

As he decides what's next, it's clear Ben Zobrist has something left in the tank

As he decides what's next, it's clear Ben Zobrist has something left in the tank

When Ben Zobrist rejoined the Cubs active roster on Sept. 1, it was fair to wonder how much he could provide offensively. After all, he spent the previous four months on the restricted list while tending to a family matter, last playing a big-league game on May 6.

Zobrist did no baseball activities from May to mid-July, only working out to stay in shape. Although he eventually ramped things up, he played in just 12 minor league rehab games in August before returning to the Cubs, a small number compared to the length of his absence.

Even Zobrist admitted upon his big-league return that his timing at the plate wasn’t where he wanted it to be. And yet, what he did in September was nothing short of impressive. In 21 games, he posted a .284/.377/.388 slash line, performing at a level many couldn’t have expected, considering the circumstances.

Zobrist's impact on the Cubs' lineup goes beyond what you see in the box score, however. Not only is he a switch hitter with some pop, but he has a keen eye for the strike zone and frequently puts together professional at-bats.

On a Cubs team that tends to expand the zone, Zobrist’s presence mattered. In his second game back, for example, he went 3-for-3 with two walks, helping the Cubs beat the Brewers 10-5. After the game, Brewers starter Chase Anderson pointed out how different the Cubs' lineup looks with Zobrist in it.

"They play the matchups really well and Zobrist makes that team so much better," Anderson said on Sept. 5. "Just bringing his presence to the top of the lineup, it changes their dynamic a little bit."

Where Zobrist stands entering 2020, though, is currently unclear.

Zobrist is set to hit free agency after the World Series and will turn 39 next May. Therefore, it’s possible that he’s played his last game in the big leagues, as he has little, if anything, left to prove at this stage in his career.

Ahead of the Cubs’ season finale on Sept. 29, Zobrist told reporters in St. Louis that he hasn’t thought about how much time he’ll take before deciding what’s next for him. His family situation will obviously play a big role in his decision, but if September showed anything, it's that he still has something left in the tank.

“I’m 38 but I got that feeling all over again,” Zobrist said following the Cubs’ season finale, a 9-0 loss to the Cardinals in which he pitched a scoreless inning. “Just really fun, you know? It’s a fun game. Sometimes you don’t come out on the winning end, but you still gotta have fun with it and enjoy it. I enjoyed it today."

The Cubs roster is expected to undergo changes this offseason, with center field, second base and the leadoff spot being just a few areas the team will look to address. The latter two spots became revolving doors during Zobrist’s absence, as the Cubs struggled to replace what he brought offensively.

Zobrist is past the point in his career of being an everyday player. However, he still could be a useful asset for the Cubs in a supporting role, bringing his veteran approach to the lineup when he plays while still offering an experienced voice in the clubhouse.

“I take a lot of joy in that role, just being a supporting guy and being a part of winning clubs and part of winning atmospheres and cultures,” Zobrist said on Sept. 29. “The Chicago Cubs have been that since I’ve been around. This year we didn’t make the playoffs — we still have a winning record — (but) the kind of relationships that are built here and the culture that’s been built here is definitely a winning one.”

After the Cubs announced that they wouldn’t retain Joe Maddon for 2020, Zobrist acknowledged that more changes were likely coming in the offseason. Only time will tell what that means for the veteran utilityman — should he continue playing.

Whether he retires or joins a different team for 2020, though, Zobrist will look back on his four seasons with the Cubs fondly.

“(They’re) just the most passionate fans I’ve ever met,” he said of Cubs fans. “They’re very loyal, very passionate and it’s been such a pleasure to be a part of that team that beat the curse back in ’16, so I feel that still, when I see Cubs fans, there’s a lot of them that hug me and thank me for being a part of that.

“I’ll always look back at [my] time here — I don’t know what’s going to happen in the offseason — but look back at these four years and [be] very grateful to be able to be part of a group like this and be able to do what we did while I was here.”

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Cubs Talk Podcast: An ode to Joe Maddon and looking to the next era

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USA Today

Cubs Talk Podcast: An ode to Joe Maddon and looking to the next era

On the latest Cubs Talk Podcast, Tony Andracki, Kelly Crull, Scott Changnon and Jeff Nelson give us their memories of Joe Maddon's time with the Cubs and discuss David Ross and Joe Espada's candidacy to be the next manager.

01:30 Kelly's memories of Joe from the perspective of a reporter

06:00 Going back to Hazleton with Joe

07:45 Joe's legacy as manager of the Cubs

16:00 How Joe impacted Javy Baez' career

18:00 David Ross and Joe Espada may be the leaders to replace Joe Maddon.

Listen here or via the embedded player below:

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Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream Cubs games easily on your device.